The pilgrims of old had to make their own way towards Santiago de Compostela, walking from home, following local advice and directions as they moved from church to church, monastery to monastery, village to village hoping to find food, shelter and safety every day. It seems a scary prospect now, but luckily the modern pilgrim has choices when it comes to travel, food and accommodation. Still, the idea of setting out on such an adventure on your own can feel a bit overwhelming.
If you want to walk on your own, but are unused to travelling alone or worry about the planning and booking side of things, you can opt for a self-guided package. This means that someone plans and books your travel, daily stages and accommodation, and provides the information you will need to find your way and make the most of your walk. Some companies sell set, pre-planned template trips, some will tailor the stages and accommodation to your needs and preferences. This kind of package can also suit groups who already know each other, but don’t quite know where to start with the logistics. Some companies send you the walking plan, maps and accommodation info and leave you to it. Some will also be available on the phone or email if you have any questions or problems along the way, or need help with anything. Different packages and service levels will be priced differently, so have a think about what you want and need from the provider.
Package: Before you task anyone with planning your daily stages, overnight stops and travel arrangements, check the feedback from previous clients. If they have walked it themselves, they should be able to set out a better itinerary. If their plan is a set package, check that it suits you. Discuss your requirements and abilities, and make sure they don’t sell you a just sell you a ready-made plan that makes you miserable.
I once met a lady with a laminated, spiral bound map book from her tour provider, which told her to walk a 40 km day with two hard hills, which was completely impossible for her. Far from making her trip more comfortable and putting her mind at ease, it made her tearful and worried. Luckily she found a taxi and cut the distance down to a manageable 20 kms instead, but at her own cost. The next day she was meant to walk only 12 kms, with no explanation why. We suspected available accommodation was a factor. Several times she found herself in hotels – nice hotels – too far from the trail to meet up with other pilgrims in the evening. They hadn’t even provided her with a credencial, nor informed her that she needed one. Luckily she found out from the other pilgrims! Make sure you get a plan that suits you.
Price: What is included, what is not – travel to the starting point, such as flights? Transport to the first lodging? Accommodation, luggage transport, insurance? Do they provide practical planning only, or will they provide interesting historical, cultural, architectural information as well? What about things like the credencial, so you can collect stamps for the compostela when you get to Santiago? Are breakfast and/or evening meals booked and included in the price at the accommodation, or do you find your own place to eat? What level of assistance will they provide once you are on the road? Do they have representatives locally in case you need someone to come and deal with medical emergencies, translation etc?
Accommodation: When it comes to accommodation, there are many options, but depending on the time of year and the number of walkers, it can be tricky to find the perfect place to stay every night. Think about what kind of accommodation you would prefer, what compromises you are willing to make, and see what the offers and options are. Will you need a sleeping bag or liner? Are there lifts or stairs? Will there be laundry services available or do you have to hand wash your clothes? Also, check or ask how far from the actual camino the accommodation is – you don’t want to have to travel far off the trail if all your fellow walkers are meeting for a meal in town!
Luggage: Depending on the provider and plan you choose, your main luggage might already be forwarded from one accommodation to the next, so you only need to carry a small daypack with some essentials – water and snacks, rain gear, a warm top, whatever else you need – as well as your mobile, maybe a camera, your wallet for bar visits and your credencial for stamps. This also means that you will be able to take more clothes and do laundry less often. If this is not included, and you have extra luggage, or you just fancy a break from a heavy pack, there are companies on the way who will forward your pack for a small fee, arranged on a daily basis. Some people, regardless of fitness, develop back or joint problems when they start walking ~20 kms every day, and going pack-free is the sensible thing to do.
Walking: Finding your way on a much travelled trail like the Camino Francés is relatively easy – you just follow the signs, shells and arrows. Still, you should be provided with an up-to-date map or route description so you know where you are going (or you might as well just have bought a guidebook). As you start walking, you will meet others, strike up conversations, stop for a coffee, agree to meet later, and may find that your new friends are stopping somewhere else. If you end up feeling restricted or locked into an itinerary that doesn’t suit you, find out what your options are for adjusting the stages and rebooking accommodation, or even cancelling the arrangement out right. Once you are on the way, anything can happen and your plans and preferences might change.
No matter how you choose to plan your camino, there are some things only you can do:
- Decide where you would like to go, how far, and when. How long have you got? Where would you like to start/walk/end up?
- Familiarise yourself with the route. Go through your provider’s plans and info, or get your own guidebook, it’s a great way to start the camino before your boots hit the ground. Make a note of places you want to see, towns you want to stop in. Note stretches without services where you will need to take extra food and water, though your plan provider should highlight this. Get to know the sort of terrain you will be walking through and what to take and not to take.
- Choose your footwear and walking clothes, your pack, your rain gear. Consider the time of year, the terrain and temperatures. Do you need clothes that dry fast, breathe well, protect you from the sun? Or do you need warm layers and wind and rain protection?
- Do some real life training. How far can you comfortably walk in a day? Go for some walks on tarmac, paths, up and down hills; go for several walks on consecutive days to check out your fitness and stamina. Go for a walk in the rain, even if it’s no fun. Do your shoes give you blisters? Do you need poles? Does anything rub, leak, make you overheat or leave you cold? How much water do you need, what snacks keep you going? Will music give you extra energy, or do you prefer to listen to the sounds of nature? Are you taking a liner or sleeping bag, will it keep you cool enough in the summer or warm enough in spring or autumn? Do your laundry in the sink after a walk and put the same clothes on again the next day. Do you have to change something?
- Pack, unpack, repack. Is your backpack or daypack comfortable with weight in it over time? Is it too heavy? Do you know what all the bells and whistles on your pack does? If your main luggage is being forwarded, what do you need to keep in your daypack?
- Learn some of the local language, if only to say hello, yes and no, please and thank you. It is practical, polite and makes meeting locals more enjoyable. No one will expect you to speak fluent Spanish, but you should also not expect anyone to speak your language fluently. There is always Google Translate if you want or need to communicate something, but learning a little language is always a good thing. How do you say good morning?
Only you know which pack feels good, what weight you can carry, how far you can walk in a day, or if you should take a poncho or rain jacket and trousers. No one else can make that decision for you. No one can provide you with a perfect packing list, but you can use lists in books or online as a starting point. As long as you keep yourself safe, warm, dry and reasonably comfortable on the trail, you are winning!
Chances are the camino will make you hungry, wet, cold, tired and sore – no amount of organising can magic that away. But it will also give you joy, strength, freedom, friendship, change, humility, gratitude, and that makes it worth it!
Pros: No stress or worries about the planning and booking, letting someone experienced sort out the logistical practicalities to your specifications and requirements. Great if you haven’t got the time, confidence or skills to do it yourself. And you will (in most cases) have someone to contact if you need help along the way, while walking at your own speed.
Cons: You might get locked into an inflexible itinerary that doesn’t suit you, and end up regretting paying for a plan that doesn’t take your needs and abilities into account. Off-trail accommodation can remove you from your pilgrim community.
To make the most of a self-guided walk, make sure you know what you want and understand what is provided, and bring up any questions before you commit.